Project Practitioners > Tactical Communication

Tactical Communication

By Margaret de Haan

How many times, when managing a project and something unexpected happens (or doesn’t), do you get reactive reasons/excuses a while after the fact?  Don’t get me wrong, you need to understand the why to be able to avoid the same thing happening in the future at the micro level, but how could it have been avoided altogether?  The longer that I manage Projects, the more that I think that it comes down to 2 things – communication and managing expectations.  I believe that if you can do that well, many of the “oops” won’t happen.

Yes, yes, I know, there are processes, documentation standards, meetings and other company standards that you have in place to avoid these things, but as a PM what are you doing to set behavioral expectations?  Does your team know what they are expected to do and when as issues are uncovered?  Most people as they read the last sentence just said to themselves, “of course they do”, but are you sure?  Did you define your expectations of them up front and actually tell them?  Are you sure that they heard you?  AND, even if you did, are you sure that what they heard was really what you said – are you really sharing a common understanding?  Is the picture exactly the same?

A few years ago one of my kids came home from day camp when they were four, fighting with his brother that it wasn’t fair that HE hadn’t gotten to get in the camp Director’s car to drive from the front of the building to the back of the building in the front seat.  Needless to say I freaked out and immediately went back to the camp to find out what had happened and why.  It turns out that the Director of the camp was testing a new counselor to see how long it took her to notice that one of the kids was not in the group.  He grabbed one of my boys without her noticing, drove him to the other end of the building, started the timer, and took him into the back door.  I had told both my boys to never get in anyone’s car without my permission, so, my question to myself was “why did my kids not understand that this was a rule that they broke”?  I started quizzing them once I got home, “is it OK to get in Ms. Linda’s (neighbor) car”?    “If Ms. Evie (family friend) came to pick you up at your school, would you go with her”?  Of the 10 questions I asked them, they only answered correctly once.  What I figured out was that I hadn’t been specific enough in what the rule really looked like to me tactically.  I hadn’t explained my expectations down to the behavior level.

So how I have avoided all of the reasons/excuses around Project surprises is to spell that out as a “rules for the team” conversation at the Project kickoff.  I am as plain and blunt as possible right up front.  Some of my touch points for the conversation: 

-          If anything comes up that is “unexpected” and can threaten the timeline/scope in any way, I expect the entire team to be emailed with the details and analysis within 4 business hours of being discovered, and a half hour meeting setup within 1 business day for the team to discuss

-          If there is ever a question about whether something is In/Out of the Project scope, the Project Manager will setup a meeting with the business owners and the team to discuss and determine next steps within 1 business day.  If there are no common times available for the entire team to meet within 2 business days, notification needs to be made by email, and meetings moved to accommodate the time

-          The Project Manager will complete, without fail, meeting minutes and action items for every meeting and distribute them to the team by the end of the next business day.  Every action item will have a deadline associated with it.

-          The Project is always a top priority, and timelines will be met.  If any member of the team is in threat of missing a deadline for any reason, that must be communicated to the Project Manager immediately, so that it can be dealt with accordingly.

The above are just a few of the things that I go over, including general roles and responsibilities for the team members assigned.  Although our titles are that of “Project Manager”, we really do not manage Projects as much as the People that work on them.  Every one of your team members comes to work every day wanting to be successful and to do their job well.  Communicating to them your expectations at a tactical level will help them, and help you.

Margaret de Haan - PMP, MBA, CSM

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